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Driver Advice Part 5 - Driver fatigue

Sleep-related accidents account for more than one-fifth of road accidents

Many drivers have experienced the feeling of drifting off while driving: head nodding; eyelids closing and having to strain to keep eyes open.

Recent-high profile accidents have highlighted how disastrous the results can be if the warning signs are ignored. Falling asleep at the wheel is not only highly dangerous, it could lead to a criminal offence and you could go to prison for several years if found guilty.

It is not only drivers who can be prosecuted: company directors who knowingly operate unsafe work practices can also be liable for prosecution if one of their drivers has an accident.

Effects of fatigue on performance

The Loughborough Sleep Research Centre (LSRC) has found that fatigue and sleepiness can affect us in many ways. The effects of fatigue on the brain lead to deterioration in performance, including the following.

  • Rigid thinking – we are less likely to come up with new ideas when tired
  • Over-reliance on previous strategies – we persevere with old methods of working even when we have  new information.
  • Impaired language and communication skills – we struggle to communicate effectively when sleepy. Foreign language skills are particularly vulnerable
  • Poor insight into own performance – we are less able to judge how performance is altered by sleepiness so may over estimate how well we are doing.

Effects of fatigue on safety behaviour

Under normal circumstances, these effects might merely lead to lost tempers and poor work relations. Where workers are involved in safety-critical tasks, such as driving, the affected abilities can include:

  • Ability to assess risks;
  • Ability to anticipate the consequences of decisions;
  • Understanding complex situations;
  • Ignoring irrelevant information;
  • Dealing with unexpected events as they occur;
  • Keeping track of changing status;
  • Prioritising complex multiple tasks.

If fatigue affects us when we are performing hazardous or safety-critical tasks, the consequences can be catastrophic.

The facts

Research undertaken by LRSC with UK police forces has shown that sleepiness is a major cause of serious accidents on monotonous roads, especially motorways

In fact, more than 20 per cent of accidents on major, non-urban roads and motorways are due to sleepiness, and sleepy drivers kill more people than drink drivers.

Not only that, but accidents caused by driver sleepiness often have far more serious consequences.

Drivers who are falling asleep make no attempt to avoid the accident and so the collision occurs at high-impact speed, with no braking or change of direction.

Consequently, sleep-related accidents often result in death or serious injury.

Typically the sleepy driver runs off the road or into another vehicle.

Who is at risk?

Research has shown that some groups are at particularly high risk of having sleepiness-related crashes.

  • Night workers This is especially true after the first night of a shift when the body has not acclimatised to a change in sleep patterns.
  • People driving home after a night shift (in the early morning) At this time of the day we are naturally at our least alert. This, coupled with fatigue from a hard night’s work, makes driving at this time of day particularly dangerous.
  • Men, particularly aged 18-24 and 50-plus  Young men have a problem admitting when they are feeling tired and are more likely to push on to avoid losing face. Older men are more susceptible to falling asleep in the afternoon due to changes in body rhythms.
  • Skilled manual workers The driving hours of this group are unregulated and so it is common to drive considerable distances to get to a job, work a physically demanding, long day and then drive back home. This causes particular problems as fatigue builds up over the course of the week.

The statistics tend to mask a real tragedy of sleep-related accidents: they often involve people trying to do their best, working long hours because they are committed to their jobs.

But make no mistake – such an accident, when on company business, can result in millions of pounds of costs, prison for the driver and the possible prosecution of the directors.

Directors and managers can also be held legally responsible and may face prosecution if they encourage or ignore overwork. 

For the full briefing note on driver fatigue please call Shop FTA on 08717 111111 quoting ‘Cool Van Man’ to purchase for £2 per copy

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